Taming the wisteria

by Davie Kean, Master Gardener at T.C. Steele State Historic Site

Money doesn’t grow on trees in Brown County, but wisteria does. Long ago, Selma Steele planted the wisteria that covers this pergola with lavender blossoms each spring. This year it is blooming exceptionally early, along with the lilac in the foreground and the dogwood in the background.

Three species of wisteria grow in the U.S. including a native one, W. frutescens, but the Japanese and Chinese types are more common — and more invasive. Wisteria is a fast-growing vine that can reach up to 30 feet tall when supported. Unfortunately, when your house becomes the support, battle lines (and pruners) must be drawn. It’s hard to keep ahead of the rapid growth as creeps under shingles and twines around nearby trees.

Those unfamiliar with the plant might ask the name of this beautiful ‘tree’ (in the photo to the left) but it is just an ‘escaped’ wisteria, climbing up at the forest edge (to the detriment of the actual tree).

One way the vigilant gardener can enjoy this beautiful vine is by training it into a shrub form. By careful pruning and lots of patience, this can be the result:

There’s still time to enjoy these blooms close-up, but hurry or you may have to ‘settle’ for masses of peonies and iris instead. I encourage you to visit T.C. Steele State Historic Site this spring. Like wisteria, it will grow on you.

April showers in Brown County (umbrellas included)

Written by Davie Kean, master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site

The arrival of spring might be described as lenient, merciful and mild. These terms are also the definition of the word clement, Theodore Steele’s middle name.

I’ve never lived in a city, but I expect that city dwellers also have budding expectations as the end of winter becomes more than just wishful thinking. We all await signs of spring — snowdrops, short sleeves — even rain! A bluebird’s trill one day, a drift of daffodils the next. Spring is cumulative.

Actually spring is more of a dance — two steps forward, one step back. After being teased by temps in the low 70s, it’s back to barely above freezing — but great weather for clearing out the flower beds in Selma Steele’s historic gardens. For you, T.C. Steele’s studio and the country home he shared with his wife Selma offer a glimpse into the past and the arrival of a new season, while sheltered from inclement weather.

T.C. Steele staff member Mary Ann Woerner captured this cheery April scene, despite the drizzle.

Although the site has much to offer on sunny days, (a hike along our wooded trails, a meditative moment at the cemetery, or a stroll through the historic gardens) it’s just as inspiring when the forecast turns gray. Sure, you could remain comfortable and cozy at home, but why not experience a bit of life in the early 1900s — and feel even more comfy in comparison?

Just as 40 degree temperatures feel cool in April but warm in January, comfort is relative. The Steele’s lifestyle (a term yet to be invented in their day) was opulent compared to that of their new Brown County neighbors, but mainstream in Indianapolis, where they usually wintered until 1916.

Eventually, Nature’s attractions overcame convenience, and T.C. and Selma decided to stay in Brown County year-round. Our schedule now coincides with theirs — we’re open year-round — whatever the weather. Don’t let the rain stop you from visiting. We’re high and dry on Bracken Hill.*

Experience spring in both 1907 and 2011. Let your expectations rise along with the waters of Salt Creek. Next time it rains, take a trek to Brown County and enjoy art, history and nature on 211 acres. Leave your umbrellas at home — we have plenty to spare.

*If spring floods leave the road underwater, call 812.988.2785 for detour directions.

Wonders never cease … I think not

by Nicole Morgan, Museum Education Specialist

I grew up here in Indiana, born and raised. Through the years, I have heard tale of many oddities around this beautiful state of ours. There have been a few of these old fables that have caught my fancy, enough so that I have ventured out of Indianapolis to witness these wonders on my own.

I heard about Gravity Hill in Mooresville and took the short trip to experience this phenomenon. The story goes that an Indian witch doctor was buried at the foot of a low hill in Mooresville and anyone who stops their car at the bottom of the hill and puts it in neutral will find themselves mysteriously coasting back up the hill for nearly a quarter-mile. I’m not sure if my Subaru was just too scared to attempt this feat or if I was just not a true believer, but my car merely stood still. Maybe the witch doctor was taking a nap?

I also took a trip to Lake Manitou, sometimes referred to as Devil’s Lake. The lake got this diabolical nickname to due to the legend of a giant serpent-like monster that is believed to reside there. This mythical creature is so old that the story is part of legend told by the Potawatomi Indians. I stood on the banks of the lake for hours. Searching. Waiting. Hoping. Nothing. Not even a fish did I see.

So when I was asked to think about something to write about for Arbor Day, I saw the perfect opportunity to explore another Indiana marvel in one of my favorite places in Indiana — Brown County. In Yellowwood Forest, there are mysterious rocks called Unexplained Resting Boulders, or URBs. These boulders are so unusual because they are found in the tree tops and no on can explain how they got there. The largest one discovered was called Gobbler’s Rock because it was found by a turkey hunter. It was a 400 pound sandstone boulder that rested about 40 feet in the tree.

Rita on the lookout for lurking URBs.

My mission was clear: Round up the dogs, get to Yellowood Forest, take a picture of aforementioned boulder and then blog my little heart out. I found a website that gave coordinates and foot directions to the tree, packed the dogs into the car and drove south. The directions seemed easy enough to follow but when we arrived to the location of the tree, it was no where to be found. I sent the dogs on the hunt and we came up empty. How could I miss a 400 pound boulder in a tree, you ask? Well, when I returned home, muddy and defeated, I did a little more research only to find that the Gobbler’s Rock tree fell down in 2006. Another missed marvel by yours truly. The trip was not all for naught. I did get to share the beauty of Yellowwood Forest with my dogs. Who knows, with all of the state forests Indiana has to choose from, maybe I am meant to discover the next URB. We could name it after my dog, Rita Rock.

The birds of Belmont and Bracken Hill

 Written by Davie Kean, master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site

All winter long, pileated woodpeckers and their smaller cousins, the red-headed, red-bellied, hairy and downy woodpeckers hammered away, echoing the carpenters working on the Sunroom Restoration at the House of the Singing Winds. Lately, eastern bluebirds have added to the human and avian percussion section with their warbling melodies.

Birdsong is such a welcome and spirit-lifting sound, bringing relief from winter’s cold and snow. “Real birders” can identify individual voices of these spring arrivals, but nature’s music — like art — can be enjoyed without specialized knowledge.

Both birds and art-lovers flock to T.C. Steele State Historic Site, but for different reasons. As a flower and shrub covered clearing amidst deep hardwood forests, the site’s ridgetop setting provides the edge habitat needed by birds, and scenic views enjoyed by humans. Where there are hills, there must be valleys, and Salt Creek and Hunnicutt Valleys, depicted in many of Steele’s paintings, are a fine prelude to what awaits above.

Last week’s heavy rains caused Salt Creek to overflow onto the fallow fields bordering T.C. Steele Road. I was concerned, since a flooded road could mean a long detour, but all was fine — even more than fine as I spotted several migrating sandhill cranes feeding in the cornfield stubble transformed into a temporary wetland.

As I stopped to watch, I wondered about their diet. Had the floodwaters washed up fish or frogs into the fields? That’s what’s on the menu for great blue herons, which are similar in size to cranes and prefer the same marshy areas. Time for some research.

It turns out that the sandhills feed on corn, left from last year’s harvest, with perhaps an insect or two as an appetizer. But they may have been attracted by the water, since they were gone in two days, along with the puddles. This year, the rains coincided with their migration, and it was the first time I’d seen them there.

I also learned that the herons’ arrival comes a week or two after the cranes pass through — but they stick around. In summer, these large herons can often be seen flying over or wading in Salt Creek’s shallows. I’ll be glad to welcome them back.

Passing by the same field earlier in the week, a large shape in a tree caught my eye. A resident bald eagle was eyeing the field for a possible meal. What a treat to see! Even though Selma Steele found the Belmont grocery lacking when she moved here in 1907, the area wildlife isn’t complaining.

Soon daffodils will add color to the drab winter landscape, but for now, birds are on the move. So bring your binoculars to Brown County for some birding on what was in the Steele’s time known as Bracken Hill.

So much more than popsicle sticks and glitter

by Rebecca Zuppann, West Region Program Assistant

When I first started working at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site, I was asked to help work on an exhibit about the Arts & Crafts Movement. To be completely honest, I had never heard of the Arts & Crafts Movement, so naturally my first thoughts were of popsicle sticks, glitter and pipe cleaners. Thankfully, I had it all wrong and was able to discover an incredible time period in art history.

The Arts & Crafts Movement was a design revolution that found roots in England in the mid-1800s. The founder of the Movement, William Morris, strongly believed that beauty and quality of goods could only be achieved through skilled craftsmanship and not solely by the production of machines. This belief, along with his socialist ideals, inspired his goal of making quality, hand-crafted products widely available, and of improving the working and living conditions of the average citizen.

Morris’ idea of simplistic design and a return to true craftsmanship found its way into all forms of art, architecture and media, and quickly spread across the world to America and to T.C. and Selma Steele. In building their Brown County home, the Steeles utilized many Arts & Crafts principles of design: use of local materials, a structure dictated by function, a flowing floor plan and decorations created by local and regional craftsmen. Visitors to the T.C. Steele State Historic Site are able to see not only the Arts & Crafts architecture and design of the home, but also a large collection of artifacts including furniture, metalwork, books, textiles and ceramics.

Join us on a journey through the Arts & Crafts Movement and take a peek into the Steeles’ lives and their deliberate design choices. The Arts and Crafts Moments: Simplicity in Design exhibit features three rotations: artifacts currently at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site, objects from the Indiana State Museum collections and items from a private collection. The first rotation continues through April 30 and the second rotation begins May 2.

A Tale of Two Cabins

Written by Davie Kean, master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site

Brown County, Indiana, is log cabin country, so it was fitting that the First Annual ‘Create it with Gingerbread’ contest featured this theme. The Dewar Cabin at T.C. Steele State Historic Site inspired staff member Mary Ann Woerner to enter the competition.

After taking careful measurements, and several photos for reference, she began constructing a scaled-down, edible version of the historic building. She enjoyed the planning of the cabin more than its construction. Perhaps Peter Dewar, the builder of the original, felt the same.

Early settlers to the area favored logs hewn from Tulip Poplar (our state tree) for their rustic cabins. It’s one of Indiana’s taller species — straight-grained and easily worked, making it an ideal building material.

Mary Ann’s cabin used different ingredients. 18 cups of flour were needed for the gingerbread dough to form the logs. The structure was then chinked with four cups of Royal Icing. She even included 18 gingerbread men, representing the numerous children of the Dewar family. Unfortunately, her dog developed a taste for gingerbread and four of the cookie-kids were short-lived.

Compare Mary Ann’s reproduction with views of the real cabin. Photos by Mary Ann Woerner.

What’s Doin’ at the Dewar Cabin?

Written by Davie Kean, master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site

T.C. Steele State Historic Site is a place of many contrasts. Here, visitors can compare an earlier way of life to their own, as they tour the historic buildings and learn of the hardships the Steeles faced upon arriving in Brown County in 1907.

The site’s Dewar Log Cabin presents another contrast. It is so different from the Steeles’ House of the Singing Winds, that it’s hard to believe that both were lived in during the same early time period. The cabin’s present location — about two miles from its original spot — is within sight of the artist’s sprawling Arts & Crafts style home, but in appearance, they are miles apart.

Selma Steele purchased and moved the little cabin in 1934, wanting to preserve it as an example of local architecture. She used it as a Trailside Museum, housing objects from nature found along the same hills and valleys painted by her husband, T.C. Steele.

That’s a bit of background. Today, artists and visitors find both buildings equally appealing. Proof of the cabin’s popularity was exhibited (literally) this fall at the Great Outdoor Art Contest on Sept. 11, 2010. The log building was featured in these winning entries:

First Place Watercolor: William Borden of Hanover, Indiana

First Place Teen 13-18: Luke Sanders, Fishers, Indiana

First Place child 12 & under: James Szalkie, Indianapolis, Indiana (also, the grandson of 1st place Watercolor winner!)

Want to know more about the cabin’s history and happenings? Ask a docent for details. Visit the site and make your own comparisons. Imagine yourself as the parents of 18 children living in the Dewar Cabin — or as a content couple entertaining and hosting area artists in the House on Bracken Hill.

T.C. Steele’s Remote Studio

Written by Davie Kean, master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site

The remote studio, framed by a pair of trees along T.C. Steele Road.

Breathing in the winter air — and inspiration — en plein-air …

One of the less frequented features of T.C. Steele State Historic Site is the remote studio, a roughly 10 x 10 foot structure reconstructed in 1994 by members of the Brown County Rotary Club. Although at a distance from the site’s main buildings, it actually sits quite near a county road. For a closer look, you can hike (or cross-country ski!) a 1/4-mile easy-access trail to this not-so-remote spot.

In winter, a glimpse of the painter’s shack can be seen through the trees as you approach the historic site. Mr. Steele used the original shelter for painting many of his winter scenes. I thought it made a nice picture itself, framed by two large trees that were much smaller in Steele’s time. Not wanting to paint the little outdoor studio from outside its protective shelter, I settled for a photograph instead.

Three young women visit the remote studio (in warmer weather) around 1919. Courtesy, Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. Frank Hohenberger collection.

More familiar to visitors is the site’s Large Studio, reputed to be the largest private studio in the midwest at the time it was built in 1916. Seeing this space, it’s surprising to learn that most of Steele’s Brown County paintings were done en plein-air — or outside. The Large Studio was designed primarily as a gallery for Steele’s many works, while his preferred painting location was outdoors.

In her memoir, The House of the Singing Winds, Selma Steele illustrates her husband’s dedication to the plein-air method:                                                           

“Finally there arose a need for distant shelters to serve as studios when inclement weather made it impossible to work in the open … the painter built a well-lighted one-room studio on the top of the high hill overlooking the Schooner and Hunnicutt valleys. There were extensive views from these windows … Here many of the winter subjects were painted that are so splendid in their delineation of wintry snows and sunshine.”

The Steele’s didn’t let a little bad weather stop them from enjoying the beauty of their Brown County home, as indicated in this second excerpt from The House of the Singing Winds:

“It followed then that on a morning in early February of 1912, with temperatures hovering near the zero mark, we left the city for some deep winter experiences in the country.”

Since T.C. Steele State Historic Site is now open year-round, there’s nothing to stop you from experiencing that same beauty today. Maybe you’d like to try out the Remote Studio during the next cold snap — or do like I did and just snap a photo.

T.C. Steele State Historic Site is open for building tours Tuesday through Sunday. We’re closed on Mondays, but the grounds and trails aren’t. Call ahead for road conditions: 812.988.2785.

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Week’s Wash

So far this year, Brown County, Indiana , has been more like Oregon weather-wise — or so I imagine, as I’ve never been there. It has been wet, many days in a row, and I sympathize with farmers and gardeners (I still don’t have all my seeds planted). My immediate meteorological concern though has to do with laundry.

I’ve never owned a clothes dryer, and while I cherish  my washer, I don’t feel deprived without a dryer —except when it rains for days on end. As it has. So lately I’ve been wondering about Selma Steele’s solution to the precipitation problem. Obviously, Selma lived before the days of fabric softener and dryer sheets.

weeks_washAs shown in her husband’s painting, Week’s Wash, Selma used a clothesline to dry their laundry. The best day to wash clothes however, isn’t always the best day to dry them. Without the Weather Channel, how did Selma know if her laundry would dry or not?

I’m fortunate to have a porch and two wooden drying racks. Even if it rains after I hang out my laundry, I don’t have to rush out and grab my clothes off the line if it starts to sprinkle. My clothesline is under the porch roof and my clothes racks can easily be taken indoors.

Selma Steele always had porches, and I’d bet she made use of them when laundry day was also a rainy day. But clothes hanging on an outside line make for a better painting — as you can see from this picture. Or stop by and see the real thing (the painting not the laundry) at T.C. Steele State Historic Site.

Week’s Wash can be purchased as a giclée print from the Friends of T.C. Steele gift shop, or online at www.tcsteele.org.

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.

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Adding Seasoning

“Seasons come and go. Eternal change — but always with their gifts of beauty.”

tc_steele_studio_signSo reads this sign by the studio door quoting T.C. Steele. Recently, I’ve asked myself why I pre-fer spring and fall to summer and winter. Not being a Minnesotan like my sister, the downside of winter seems pretty obvious, but what’s wrong with summer? It’s warm, it’s great for gardening (the only time for tomatoes) and summer means my living space is doubled. (I would rather have my screened-in porch than an extra bedroom.)

The calendar says that summer begins on June 21, but I think it arrived overnight. The woods are suddenly lush and green (but with fewer shades of green). Just last week I didn’t have to leave the porch to watch the birds and squirrels. Now the leaves are so dense I have to guess at what’s rustling around out there.

I think it’s the change of spring and fall that I like so much. Summer and winter are like meat and potatoes — very filling. They fill up the year, but they need spring and fall, however brief, to provide the seasoning. We welcome spring as an end to winter, and enjoy fall bittersweetly — knowing what lies ahead.

Both Selma and T.C. Steele surely appreciated all of the seasons. The artist painted many winter scenes en plein aire — not from the comfort of his studio. They added porches as fast as they enclosed them, to stay close to the natural world around them and more in tune with the changing seasons (and to stay cool in those pre-AC days).

After a few years summering in Brown County, the Steeles made The House of the Singing Winds their year-round home. I wonder if it was so they wouldn’t miss that day in May when spring suddenly turned into summer, long before it was official.

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.